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College sophomore Zeynep Enkavi remembers being shocked at the sheer size of the United States.

“Istanbul is a very big city with 14 million people but here, the buildings, the streets, the cars, the food — everything felt just too big and I felt suffocated,” the Turkish native wrote in an e-mail.

According to International Student and Scholar Services director Rudie Altamirano, international students like Envaki make up 4,600 of the 20,000-student population at Penn.

All of these students bring diverse experiences and different backgrounds, but all experience a common challenge: acclimating to Penn. For many, the U.S. brings culture shocks from language barriers, to navigating a new educational system, to homesickness.

Enkavi recounted troubles getting used to the food, saying, “I couldn’t eat anything for a couple of weeks when I first came.”

“Turkish food is pretty unique,” she explained, “and even though I wasn’t exactly looking for that taste, nothing here seemed really appealing.”

Some challenges are also more specific to graduate students, doctoral student Manisha Joshi explained, such as the inability to obtain work visas or sufficient funding opportunities due to lack of a green card.

For Joshi, much time has passed since she left India for Harvard University to pursue her Masters degree.

Yet the things that struck her then still resonate, such as reconciling her preference not to drink with trying to fit in at social events.

She especially remembers being surprised about the less authoritative role played by teachers, such as the way students sometimes use a professor’s first name to the “American student’s lack of hesitation in terms of voicing their thoughts,” Joshi wrote.

Despite these academic differences, the personal relationships that form among other international students often define their experiences better.

College freshman Seulgi Choi and College junior Karen Aguirre mentioned that the international student community as a whole is not very tightly knit, but rather, there seems to be more of an emphasis on individual regions or countries.

“During [New Student Orientation], there were a bunch of e-mails to help international students out,” Choi said, “but although there are a lot of resources, it’s somehow separated by [regions], like Koreans tend to give more support for Koreans.”

Aguirre added, “The exchange [student] community is tight, very close, but the [international group] is more broken.”

However, Altamirano stressed that his office has several programs designed not only to promote an international student-friendly environment at Penn, but also to join international students together to create such an environment.

Joshi is the graduate co-chair of one such initiative called the International Student Advisory Board, created in 2007 by Altamirano.

“ISAB functions mainly as an advocacy group,” Joshi wrote. “It takes forward the international student issues/concerns … to the administrators and then works collaboratively with them to formulate strategies and creative solutions [for] those concerns.”

Penn Law student Vijit Chahar added that he has also felt unity in his Master of Laws class, which is almost entirely composed of foreign-educated lawyers.

“We came to the law school a month before regular classes began, so there definitely was a community of international students that helped me get adjusted,” the Indian native wrote in an e-mail.

However, Enkavi said she would prefer to get more assimilated simply by interacting with domestic students.

“I didn’t just want to be an international student and wanted to get to know as many American students I can too,” she wrote.

And being an international student is definitely a conversation starter, she and Choi agreed.

“People seem to be interested when I first introduce myself,” Choi said, saying that most people take interest in her obviously Korean name.

“As an international student, almost always you are considered different, authentic, exotic — and people want to know more about you,” Enkavi added. “I wasn’t used to that, but now I like it.”

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